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Conservation Tillage

Partnering with dairies for clean air

Two men in a field

Conventional farming techniques, practiced on more than nine million acres in California’s Central Valley, involve significant soil disturbance which increases dust pollution and diesel emissions.

Experts identify farming as a significant source of air pollution in the Central Valley. In some regions, crop cultivation and harvest contribute significant volumes of dust each day. Tractors that run on diesel also release emissions which can lead to ozone and smog pollution.

Central Valley residents — especially children and the elderly — suffer from a variety of respiratory problems due to pollution from farming and other sources. At least 10% of the population is afflicted with chronic breathing disorders. Fresno County, the leading farming region in the nation, has the country’s highest asthma mortality rate.

Results

  • On average, farmers using conservation tillage have reduced their dust and diesel emissions by up to 70% and 50%, respectively
  • Starting on fewer than 100 acres in 2003, we and our partners have helped California farmers make the switch to less intensive methods for growing food on nearly 300,000 acres across nine counties – nearly 450 square miles
  • In 2010 alone, farmers using conservation tillage saved over $16 million in fuel, labor and maintenance costs

Tillage methods

Tillage methods

Conservation tillage (top) vs. standard cultivation.

Less is more

An effective and simple solution to reduce farming’s impact on air quality and human health is a suite of low-impact cultivation practices called “conservation tillage.”

These include leaving crop stubble (such as corn stalks) on the surface of the soil and planting a new crop right on top. Unlike conventional tillage, the remaining crop residue protects the soil from erosion and prevents wind from blowing it into the air. Conservation tillage also involves reducing the number of tractor passes farmers make to prepare fields for planting. Conservation tillage dramatically cuts dust and diesel pollution from farming compared to standard cultivation methods, and there's great potential for widespread adoption throughout the state.

Conservation tillage also greatly lowers fuel, labor and maintenance costs — all without harming crop yields. Since 2003, Central Valley farmers have saved tens of millions of dollars.

With partners, Sustainable Conservation is promoting the use of conservation tillage on dairy silage fields throughout the Central Valley to dramatically cut air pollution, benefit farmers’ bottom lines and local farm economies, and help communities throughout the state breathe easier.